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4 stars
An intro to the universe that combines Dawkins' love for science with his fervent rationalism

There are countless science books for kids, teens and lifelong learners, with titles like “How Much is a Million?” or “Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes”. The best of these books celebrate wonder and the beauty of elegant explanations. Most avoid the rocky terrain of religion and spirituality. Why limit the audience of a general science book by engendering controversy and criticism?

But Richard Dawkins is no stranger to controversy. With books like “The God Delusion”, he has become a leading figure of the New Atheist movement. As an evolutionary biologist, he has been especially concerned with the religious efforts, sometimes masquerading as science, to promote creationism and undermine science. His book “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” (reviews) remains one of the best general introductions to evolutionary biology I know.

“The Magic of Reality”, as its title suggests, has an even larger scope: it seeks to foster curiosity and contrasts scientific explanations for life, the universe and everything with mythology. Its target audience are teens, though the book is readable with some help by younger kids and enjoyable for older readers as well.

The book is richly illustrated by Dave McKean, whose previous work has helped bring to life stories by Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, and Stephen King. You may want to invest in (or borrow) the hardcover edition, which gives the photos and illustrations the space they deserve.

Given its large scope, the selection of topics in “Magic” is necessarily somewhat arbitrary. The chapter headings are:

  1. What is reality? What is magic?

  2. Who was the first person?

  3. Why are there so many different kinds of animals?

  4. What are things made of?

  5. Why do we have night and day, winter and summer?

  6. What is the sun?

  7. What is a rainbow?

  8. When and how did everything begin?

  9. Are we alone?

  10. What is an earthquake?

  11. Why do bad things happen?

  12. What is a miracle?

Most chapters begin with myths, and biblical myths get no special treatment here: stories by “Tasmanian aborigines” are told side-by-side with those of “the Hebrew tribes of the Middle East”. This diversity is very refreshing, and the illustrations help the reader to immerse herself in each myth or story.

This is followed by Dawkins’ best shot at an explanation for the “real story”, ranging from evolution by natural selection to tectonic plates, the refraction of light, or the Earth’s tilted axis of rotation relative to its orbital plane.

A few times, Dawkins writes things like this:

Well then, does our quest to cut things ever smaller and smaller end with these particles: electrons, protons and neutrons? No—even protons and neutrons have an inside. Even they contain yet smaller things, called quarks. But that is something I’m not going to talk about in this book. That’s not because I think you wouldn’t understand it. It is because I know I don’t understand it.

Dawkins’ willingness to admit ignorance and uncertainty, too, is refreshing, though there are times when then book would have benefited from a co-author with a different background (a physicist, for example) to flesh out an explanation. The quoted passage is perhaps one of those times: quantum physics is wild and beautiful enough to deserve more space in a book about the magic of reality.

Pages about dust mites from The Magic of Reality
Almost every page is illustrated with photographs or drawings. Most chapters begin with stories from mythology, but when talking about things that are small to see with the naked eye, Dawkins points out the notable absence of myths that predict or describe them.

Dawkins does succeed in making connections between the chapters, but overall, some topical transitions are a bit abrupt (“let’s talk about life on other planets - now let’s talk about earthquakes”).

Throughout the book, Dawkins acknowledges the beauty of myth while contrasting it with the “magic of the real”. He is especially critical of flimflam artists who try to convince people of supernatural powers, while his criticism of religion is not as pronounced and explicit as in some of his other works.

In the last chapter (“What is a miracle?”) the book echoes Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World”, conveying similar lessons about critical thinking to a younger audience. Where Sagan gave his readers a “Baloney Detection Kit”, Dawkins uses a few simple examples (e.g., the Cottingley Fairies, the Fatima apparitions) to contrast the belief in miracles with more plausible explanations.

The Verdict

“The Magic of Reality” is a beautiful book, and I can recommend it as a gift, especially to curious younger people, or as a refresher intro to some basic scientific observations about the world we live in. It leaves the reader hungry for more, which is one of the best things one could ask for from a science book for young audiences. Its willingness to contrast science and myth makes it a relatively rare treat.

My main criticisms are that the book would have benefited from a bit more physics content, and more work on the overall narrative structure (through chronology, scale, historical figures, or some other structuring device). Recommended; 4 out of 5 stars.

New Internationalist
4 stars
A critical view of global events, featuring authentic voices from around the world

In the social and political upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, many socialist and progressive publications were born. Most are long gone; New Internationalist, founded in 1973 in the UK, is a notable exception. Not only has it survived well into the 21st century, it has proven its adaptability through a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $900K in donations.

Through its history, the publication has focused on liberation and decolonization movements around the world and on the global impact of unbridled capitalism. It was one of the first publications to highlight the dangers of Nestlé’s efforts to market infant formula milk in the developing world; decades later, it played a similar role in raising awareness of fracking.

A significant part of New Internationalist’s ethos is to “give space for people to tell their
own stories”, that is, to feature international writers instead of Western “experts” and correspondents. This helps to lend an authenticity to its reporting that many other publications lack.

New Internationalist "baby milk" cover
The provocative April 1982 cover of New Internationalist, revisiting the issue of infant formula milk.

New Internationalist also operates the Ethical Shop, which sells books, calendars, clothing, and various other merchandise. This includes original publications, such as the series of “No-Nonsense Guides” on topics ranging from global finance to drug legalization. Other products are sold together with partner charities. The shop follows a Buying Policy that seeks to promote good labor and environmental practices.

While it tends to support left-wing politics, New Internationalist is not an explicitly socialist magazine.

Finances, Transparency, Impact

Many of the US-based nonprofit media we have reviewed are dependent on grants, awarded from the fortunes amassed by the likes of Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, George Soros, Herbert Sandler, or previous generations of industrialists. This can create a bias towards elite audiences and away from highly contentious topics (see, e.g., Rodney Benson: Can foundations solve the journalism crisis?).

In contrast, the revenue supporting New Internationalist comes from people buying digital and print publications, or ordering other products from the Ethical Shop. This is broken down in percentages in the 2013/14 Annual Report, which does however not include GBP (£) figures. Indeed, the New Internationalist website includes no direct reference to organizational internals, and I did not receive a response to a contact inquiry asking for more recent information.

This lack of transparency is all the more regrettable given that the organization is run as a co-op with a non-hierarchical structure, very unlike the top-down model that is typical for US nonprofits. The rest of the world would benefit from learning more about this approach from those who practice it.

The UK Companies House report for New Internationalist Publications Ltd. shows net assets of 853K GBP (about 1.15M USD) as of March 31, 2016.

As of this writing, New Internationalist has about 37.8K followers on Twitter and about 80K on Facebook. These numbers should have some room to grow; consider, for example, that Positive News (also UK-based, also a co-op, with a smaller budget and smaller print circulation) has about 260K Facebook followers.

Design and Apps

The New Internationalist website is a minimalist feed of articles that mixes shorter posts and features, without any apparent prioritization beyond recency. Stories are tagged with regions and topics, which can be used to explore the large library of articles. The site is reasonably mobile-friendly. Some readers may have difficulty with the relatively low contrast color scheme (an unfortunate recent design trend).

As with many publications from the print era, only a subset of New Internationalist content is available for free online. If you prefer digital over a print subscription, you can purchase and read the magazine on Android or iOS devices via the respective apps (New Internationalist for Android, New Internationalist for iOS).

The Android app works well enough, though there are a few annoyances; for example, wide tables require horizontal scrolling, but accidental “swipe” gestures trigger moving from one article to the next, making it almost impossible to actually view wide tables. On the plus side, the article text is readable, and tables are presented as tables rather than as embedded images.

"New Internationalist" Android app
You can purchase full copies of the magazine via the Android and iOS apps.

An alternative to buying copies through the apps is purchasing them through Zinio and reading the magazine through its dedicated reader. As far as I can tell, there is no option to purchase and download DRM-free PDF files, and I found no evidence that any part of New Internationalist (web or app) is developed as open source software. New Internationalist articles are under conventional copyright (as opposed to a Creative Commons license).

Content Example: “The Equality Effect”

While not all content is available for free, many feature stories are posted in full. “The Equality Effect” is such a feature story, written by Danny Dorling, Professor of Geography at the University of Oxford and author of a book with the same title. In fact, much of the July issue was dedicated to the issue of inequality and edited by Dorling.

The article is analytical, making the case that inequality is the source of a large number of social ills, and not at all unavoidable. Rather than promoting a specific political ideology, Dorling is making a case to consider policies addressing inequality on their merits:

Although leftwing and green politicians tend to advocate greater equality more vocally, and rightwing and fascist ones tend to oppose it, equality is actually not the preserve of any political label. Great inequality has been sustained or increased under systems labelled as socialist and communist. Some free-market systems have seen equalities grow and the playing field become more level. Anarchistic systems can be either highly equitable or inequitable.

At the bottom of the article is a carousel of “related articles”, some from the same issue. It’s easy to miss that Dorling wrote another piece in the July issue expanding on his argument: “The rich, poor and the earth”. It cites additional data and attempts to show correlations between inequality and waste production, CO2 emissions, and meat consumption.

"Meat consumption" chart from Dorling's article
As presented, this chart does not support the thesis of the article that inequality is meaningfully correlated with meat consumption, let alone that there is a causal relationship.

Skeptical readers will find the analysis here to be lacking in rigor. Dorling dismisses outliers; in the case of the “meat consumption” chart, France, Germany, and the UK show very similar levels of meat consumption in spite of large differences in inequality. Eliminate the US and even the appearance of a correlation largely disappears; in any case, a correlation coefficient is not given.

With these kinds of charts, there are many ways to demonstrate the result you want: by cherry-picking countries, by picking the measure of inequality that shows the strongest correlation, and by only considering alternative explanations for data points that disagree with the hypothesis (“their cultural histories are bound up with the rearing of sheep and cattle”).

Data scientists warn that much more visually compelling spurious correlations can be found between many completely unrelated measures, and that even peer reviewed science is routinely subject to data dredging and p-hacking. “Science isn’t broken, it’s just a hell of a lot harder than we give it credit for,” warned a must-read article by FiveThirtyEight science writer Christie Aschwanden.

The thematic focus on inequality is laudable, and it makes sense that New Internationalist would invite an accomplished academic writer on this topic as guest editor. In fact, the much larger Guardian also published Dorling’s bubble chart analysis uncritically. Still, we should expect a greater level of empirical rigor in unpacking complex issues such as this one.

Content Example: “The Many Roots of Homelessness”

Civil war, mental illness, poverty, gang violence: the many roots of homelessness” is a more conventional storytelling piece from the June issue that shares personal narratives of people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity from the Philippines, Great Britain, the United States and, Mexico.

This short article showcases New Internationalist’s strength in featuring authentic voices from around the globe. For example, Maria from the Philippines describes the economic pressure which forces her family to live in a slum:

We found a room for rent in the nearby block. It cost $50 a month. It’s expensive and eats a huge chunk of Marvin’s monthly income of $119. I can’t work yet because I have to take care of our baby, Mark. So this is our home for now.

This kind of storytelling is crucial to overcome stereotypes and to challenge the stigma often associated with homelessness.

The Verdict

New Internationalist is important: it sheds light on underreported injustices and amplifies the voices of activists who seek to bring about positive change. As a left-wing publication, it occupies a relatively lonely space by taking an impact-oriented international view without being stridently ideological.

It has outlasted many other magazines and successfully made its way into the 21st century, but not without stumbling. The website and apps still have a few mostly minor bugs; the site design suffers from small readability issues and lacks clear organizing principles; the level of transparency is below some other mature nonprofits of similar size (compare Truthout’s timely and comprehensive Annual Reports, for example).

You will find many stories here that nobody else is covering, with larger ambition and reach than other publications we’ve reviewed, and the editorial quality is generally high. When tackling complex topics, New Internationalist would benefit from more rigorous internal review to ensure the highest possible quality of reporting. Recommended; 4 out of 5 stars.

4 stars
A great starting point for learning a new language

Founded in 2009 by Luis von Ahn of reCAPTCHA fame, Duolingo has quickly become the most popular free language learning tool, reaching some 150 million users today. Is it any good? The short answer: yes, but if you’re serious about learning a language, use it in combination with other resources.

After you sign up, the core experience is a set of interactive exercises focusing on different areas of a language: basic vocabulary, sentence structure, past and future verb tenses, and so on. Learning takes place along a sequential path, but you’re encouraged to repeatedly practice previous lessons.

Standard exercises include

  • practicing vocabulary using photographs (sort of like flash cards)

  • translating sentences in either direction

  • writing down what you hear

  • multiple choice quizzes of the “pick the correct translation(s)” variety

  • speaking sentences in the language you’re learning (the automatic validation errs on the side of marking your pronunciation correct)

This variety keeps the lessons interesting, though even after months of use, I still sometimes translate when I’m supposed to be transcribing. The mobile app minimizes the amount of typing by letting you “tap together” sentences rather than writing them, easing the difficulty a bit in favor of keeping things user-friendly.

One huge plus is that Duolingo is generally pretty good at accepting multiple translations for the same phrase. Sure, users still complain about correct translations not being accepted, but compared with language learning applications I’ve tried in the past, it handles the very large solution space pretty well, at least in Spanish.

Speaking of user comments, every exercise is linked to a discussion forum, which often contains helpful tips, both from other learners and native speakers.

Screenshot of Duolingo module for translation
A typical Duolingo lesson will include translation exercises like this one. The UI is streamlined so you never really get stuck — you can always quickly refresh your memory through built-in hints.

Duolingo is well-funded and its product designers and engineers routinely launch new experimental features. For example, as of this writing, the “Labs” section features Duolingo Stories, which are interactive, spoken short stories where you complete sentences as you go. The iOS app, meanwhile, is currently experimenting with chatbots.

This is all well and good, but the core product isn’t receiving nearly as much love. Aside from the exercises, there’s very little context that helps you to learn about grammar or the internal patterns of the language you’re learning. Some lessons include some instructive text, which tends to be both minimal and not very well-written. And once you’re done with the lessons (which, for Spanish, took me a few months), you’re still at very limited proficiency with nothing else to do but to practice or to try more “Labs” projects.

Screenshot of Duolingo personal stats
Gamification is a core part of the Duolingo user experience. The site tracks your daily usage, rewards you for completion of lessons, and sends you (genuinely helpful) reminders to keep at it.

On the positive side, the gamification — daily reminders, XP scores, levels, gemstones, etc. — does work to develop a language learning habit. Even aspects that may seem excessively silly (the mobile app lets you dress the Duolingo mascot in fancy clothes with the gemstones you’ve earned) do increase the user’s emotional investment in the learning process.

The business model is advertising (earlier plans to monetize translations notwithstanding), and the company has so far generally maintained a “not evil” reputation. You can even turn off the ads by paying a monthly fee, though most users will probably not find that to be worth it. With a high valuation and repeated injections of huge amounts of funding, let’s hope Duolingo continues to follow the straight and narrow.

I recommend Duolingo wholeheartedly — just don’t expect that it’ll be enough to get you from novice to pro. Use it in combination with books, videos, or free courses like Language Transfer. If you live in a big city, face-to-face Meetup groups can also be a great way to find other language learners and native speakers.

5 stars
A painful but necessary look at America's 21st century racial caste system

I remember well the chills I felt listening to Barack Obama’s victory speech from Grant Park in November 2008. As a recent immigrant to the United States, it seemed like I was witnessing an important new beginning for a country that had struggled with the legacy of slavery and segregation for so long.

Two years later, legal scholar Michelle Alexander published The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, taking stock of America’s criminal justice system and issuing a warning against premature optimism in light of Obama’s victory. As the title suggests, Alexander’s book links America’s globally unique system of mass imprisonment with the decades of post-slavery segregation, discrimination and voter suppression known as the Jim Crow era (named after a racist blackface caricature).

The new racial caste system

Alexander’s thesis is that the system of segregation has simply been replaced by another racial caste system, one which is compatible with America’s newly found ethos of “colorblindness”. Through the “War on Drugs” and related “anti-crime” campaigns heavily targeting poor, black communities (without a plausible justification for this racial bias), the United States swept millions of African-Americans into the criminal justice system.

Massive sentencing disparities such as the whopping 100:1 weight ratio determining crack cocaine vs. cocaine sentences (reduced to 18:1 with the Fair Sentencing Act) kept them there for much longer. Upon release, they are stuck with felony records that are the basis for legalized discrimination ranging from voter disenfranchisement in some states, to housing and employment discrimination. They are a despised underclass which anyone can hate without repercussions.

Through one Supreme Court decision after another, apparent constitutional protections have been eroded at every step of the way — from racially biased policing to unfair sentencing and all-white juries. On page 119 (2012 paperback edition), Alexander notes poignantly:

It is difficult to imagine a system better designed to ensure that racial biases and stereotypes are given free rein—while at the same time appearing to be colorblind—than the one devised by the U.S. Supreme Court.

This system, which never exclusively targets African-Americans but is heavily biased against them, has been established by both Democrats and Republicans. Its foundation was laid by Ronald Reagan and his new “War on Drugs”, while mass incarceration itself was perfected by Bill Clinton’s “tough on crime” administration.

Michelle Alexander supports these observations with countless studies and statistics. Her writing is provocative but always grounded in the facts, and her conclusions are inescapably correct.

Importantly, Alexander notes that the “new Jim Crow” is not simply a “gentler” successor to the system of racial segregation that preceded it; it is in many ways more pernicious. Millions have been demonized and caged like animals. But because the system operates largely without open declarations of racist beliefs, it is difficult to challenge or even talk about without predictable “then just don’t commit crimes” responses (ignoring that white people go free for the same crimes that black people are punished for).

The system endures

Since Alexander’s book was published, no major criminal justice reform has been implemented, and America continues to lead the world incarceration rankings. Its prisons are known for human rights abuses, from shackling pregnant women (even during delivery) to forcing prisoners to endure extreme heat (and sometimes die from it). It practices solitary confinement for long periods under horrific conditions, and even forces prisoners to share cells designed for solitary use, leading to predictable results.

Barack Obama was succeeded by a far-right reactionary with open sympathies for white nationalists and other despicable groups. Indeed, Donald Trump ran a playbook “law and order” campaign frequently employing racist stereotypes, primarily targeting immigrants. After losing the popular vote by millions, he was swept into office by an electoral system that was designed to boost slave-owning states’ voting power based on how many slaves they owned.

The new Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is keen to reboot the War on Drugs once more, and has already reinstated harsher sentences for low-level drug offenses. For-profit prisons, police militarization and civil forfeiture are en vogue again. Together, these measures ensure that mass incarceration will be with us for years to come. And by pardoning indisputably racist, vile and criminal Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Donald Trump himself has sent a clear message about his expectations from law enforcement.

An essential guide to an ugly reality

New developments notwithstanding, seven years after the first edition, Alexander’s book remains an essential guide to uncovering the reality of America’s new system of racial control. It is a difficult, painful read, but it opens our eyes to the scale and severity of this challenge.

Though written by a legal scholar, Alexander is critical of tunnel vision and the “NGO-ization” of liberation movements. Indeed, if you previously thought that the US Supreme Court is on the side of moral progress, this book will convince you that it all too frequently simply bolsters the prevailing systems of control. Though Alexander advocates no specific political philosophy, she endorses broad movement-based politics in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. (including his frequently forgotten Poor People’s Campaign).

Alexander’s scholarship has predictably been questioned by people invested in the status quo, but it is rock solid. When looking at attempted “rebuttals”, be sure you’ve actually read her entire book (she anticipates many responses), and that you’re familiar with the “stock and flow” distinction.

Also note that Alexander does not explore in-depth the connection between the drug war and violence; other scholars have demonstrated that drug-related violence is the inevitable byproduct of aggressive prohibition politics. Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream about the drug war, while not as rigorous as Alexander’s work, is an easy read and very complementary (see my review).

Finally, while The New Jim Crow is well-sourced, it uses statistics primarily to underscore its key points; for extensive charts and data, see sites like the Sentencing Project, Vera, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the Brennan Center.

Bullspotting: Finding Facts in the Age of Misinformation
4 stars
Learn how to protect yourself from scams!

I took a class at my school. I learned how to take an idea in, think about it and decide how much truth it holds. Some people call this process “critical thinking” or “rational inquiry.” Call it what you will; all people should build this skill.

People across the world practice critical thinking. The people belong to a group called “the skeptic community.” Some members of the skeptic community stand tall with fame:

  • James Randi

  • Penn and Teller

  • Michael Shermer

  • Peter Bhoghossian.

I had to read a book for my critical-thinking class. I read Bullspotting by Loren Collins. Collins has worked in the skeptic community for years. He found his niche when he started to fight back against the Obama Birth conspiracy theory. But I had never heard of him. So, I started his book without bias.

I stopped believing in God in 2000. Since then, I took up critical-thinking as a hobby. I loved to learn about it. I loved to learn about who practiced it. But I never spent time learning how to practice it myself. At last, I learned when I read Collins’ book.

As I read, I learned about the dangers that come when bad ideas get popular. I learned about the hazards you risk when you take a false idea as true. Then, I learned how to stay safe from these risks. I learned how to see if an idea follows good logic. I learned how to see the symptoms of lies, bad science and empty claims. And, I learned about the different shapes and sizes that these threats come in. For instance, a rumor starts from one of three causes:

  • someone heard something wrong

  • someone understood something wrong

  • someone remembered something wrong

Also, a person will pull off a hoax (or scam) for one of three reasons:

  • for fun

  • for money

  • to get ahead in their own way.

Collins spends time telling stories of famous conspiracies and hoaxes from the past. He goes into detail about how they started, how they grew and how they ended. Then, he looks at the symptoms they held; he shows how they fooled us. At last, he shows us how we could have spotted the lies and saved ourselves from damage. Collins covers topics like:

  • Holocaust Denial

  • Moon Landing Denial

  • Alternative Medicine

  • 9/11 Truth Conspiracies

  • Creationism

  • 14th Amendment Citizenship in the USA.

When you read Bullspotting, you will get smarter. You will gain knowledge when you read it. And, you will get a weapon: you will get a skill that filters out nonsense as you take in new information. This will make you learn with more efficiency.

Bullspotting holds only two-hundred pages. But it goes by at a slow pace. It goes at this pace because its two-hundred pages hold a lot of information. I wanted to take it all in as I read. And I wanted to understand it. And keep it. So, I took my time to read it. And so should you.

I read Bullspotting; I feel smarter than ever. Also, I feel safer. I feel safer because I will never fall for a scam again. I will never make a bad decision. I will never get a treatment that science doesn’t say works. And, I thank Collins for that.You should read the book yourself.

You can get a copy here.

3 stars
Important research marred by poor editing and conspiratorial tangents

Hollywood blockbuster action movies are full of depictions of military machinery, of men and women in uniform, of undercover agents. These depictions are often the direct result of partnerships between the filmmakers and the Department of Defense, the CIA, or other government agencies.

In exchange for access to equipment and personnel, the government may provide remarkably detailed script notes ranging from legitimate factual corrections (“General Perry would likely not be the convening authority”) to changes in plot and characterization (“To make [the civilian ambassador] look like a real wet noodle, have [the Lieutenant] say …”). The viewer is none the wiser that the film they’ve just seen was originally more critical, or that important elements of the plot were changed.

Matthew Alford (Teaching Fellow for Propaganda Theory, University of Bath) and Tom Secker (writer, podcaster, researcher) are authors of a new book, National Security Cinema: The Shocking New Evidence of Government Control in Hollywood, which documents these connections. It is based in significant part on new research under the Freedom of Information Act.

To his credit, Secker has put the source documents online as a ZIP file. Whether or not you buy the book, I recommend grabbing a copy. Incidentally, the quotes above are from the Marine Corps script notes to Rules of Engagement, and they cannot currently be found anywhere else on the Internet.

Much of the book consists of case studies, contrasting the requested changes to movies like Iron Man, Lone Survivor, or Charlie Wilson’s War with the original script, or (where applicable) source material and actual events. It cites examples from film and television, and also briefly discusses financial incentives which may reinforce pro-military biases, such as product placement by gun manufacturers.

The book is poorly edited and includes both typos and repetitions that could easily have been caught. It would also be a stronger book without conspiratorial tangents about, e.g., the timeline of 9/11’s doomed Flight 93. Co-author Tom Secker is no stranger to conspiracy theories, which undermines the credibility of this work.

In spite of these distracting flaws, the authors have done important work in documenting the pervasive pro-government, pro-military biases in US entertainment. Read critically and patiently, National Security Cinema does offer a necessary and useful perspective on these biases, and the downloadable archive of source documents is an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to explore the topic further.

Further reading

Co-author Matthew Alford wrote a good introduction to the research featured in the book for The Conversation (a nonprofit media outlet which I’ve previously reviewed here): “Washington DC’s role behind the scenes in Hollywood goes deeper than you think”.

5 stars
Technoethical t400s review

Technoethical T400s Libreboot laptop review

This is just to share my experience. (I am in no way affiliated with Technoethical.)

My background

I am a satisfied Debian user since I moved away from Windows in 2008. Back then I thought I could trick the market by ordering one of the very few systems that didn’t come pre-installed with proprietary software. Therefore I went for a rather cheap Acer Extensa 5220 that came with Linplus Linux. Unfortunately it didn’t even have a GUI and I was totally new to GNU/Linux. So the first thing I did was to install Debian because I value the concept of this community driven project. I never regretted it. But the laptop had the worst possible wireless card built in. It never really worked with free software.

In the mean time I have learned a lot and I started to help others to switch to free software. In my experience it is rather daunting to check new hardware for compatibility and even if you manage to avoid all possible issues you end up with a system that you can not fully trust because of the bios and the built in hardware (Intel ME for example).

The great laptop

Therefore I am very excited that you can actually order hardware nowadays that others have checked for best compatibility already. Since my old laptop got very unreliable recently I wanted to do better this time and I went for the Technoethical T400s, which comes pre-installed with Trisquel.

I am very pleased with the excellent customer care and the quality of the laptop itself. I was especially surprised how lightweight and slim this not so recent device is.

When the ThinkPad T400s was first released in 2009 it was reviewed as an excellent, well built but rather expensive system for about 2000 Euros. The weakest point was considered the mediocre screen. The Technoethical team put in a brand new screen which has perfectly neutral colours, very good contrast as well as good viewing angles. I’ve got 8 GB RAM (the maximum possible), an 128 GB SSD (instead of 64 GB) and the stronger dualcore SP9600 with 2.53 GHz (instead of the SP9400 with 2.40 GHz) CPU. In addition I’ve received a caddy adapter for replacing the CD/DVD drive with another hard disk. And all this for less than 900 Euros.

This is the most recent laptop of the very few devices worldwide that come with Libreboot and the FSF RYF label out of the box. The wireless does flawlessly work right away with totally free software. This system fulfills everything I need from a PC as a graphic designer. Image editing, desktop publishing, multimedia and even light 3D gaming. Needless to say that common office tasks as emailing and web browsing do of course work flawlessly. To get everything done properly only few people do actually need more powerful working machines.

The battery is a little weak

The only downside for power users on the go might be the limited battery life of about two hours with wireless enabled. It is possible to get a new battery which might extend the life to about 3 hours but because the battery is positioned on the bottom front you can’t use a bigger one. (The only sensible option would be a docking station, but I was never fond of those bulky things that crowd my working space even when the laptop isn’t on the desk.)


Over all this is a great device that just works with entirely free software. I thank the Technoethical team for offering this fantastic service and I encourage you to support ethically motivated companies like Thechnoethical instead of getting your hardware bundled with proprietary software because without investing money in technology we want we will never get to the point where it is easy and normal to chose free systems right from the start without the need for additional work to liberate yourself by becoming a person that is technically more skilled than average users are.

I can only recommend buying one of those T400s laptops from Technoethical.

4 stars
At times glorious, at times infuriatingly corny and incoherent - but still fun

When the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski collaborate, you know you’re in for a treat to the senses. The basic premise of Sense8 is wild: humans are evolving the capacity to form small “clusters” that share memories, experiences and skills across vast distances, telepathically dropping in on each other’s lives, walking in each other’s shoes.

That premise is used to challenge the viewer to embrace diversity in all its forms, while telling the story of one such cluster and its fight against the inevitable attempt to halt or hide the evolution of the “sensates”.

Meanwhile, the members of the cluster also have to deal with prejudice and drama in their own lives. Trans woman Nomi Marks faces rejection and abusive comments by her bitter, hateful mother; actor Lito Rodriguez has to face coming out as gay in Mexico; bus driver Capheus Onyango deals with organized crime and corruption in Kenya’s Kibera slum.

The show is unflinching in its portrayal of life’s richness and diversity. Recreational drug use, group sex, polyandry, gay and lesbian relationships, and much more all on proud, prominent display. Its in large part the show’s willingness to explore the emotional depths of these experiences that makes it such a remarkable piece of entertainment, owing perhaps to the creative freedom afforded by working on a Netflix production.

Gratuitous? Not really — the core theme of the show is empathy (as symbolized through the psychic connection between the “sensates”), so it makes sense that it would use its large canvas to paint a world where prejudices can and must be overcome. If anything, the show barely touches on themes like disability, mental illness, religion, or many other characteristics that are used to divide and stigmatize.

The only real problem with Sense8 is its plot. The actions of the “cluster” are often difficult to follow, owing to quick jumps and the confusing mechanics of how “sensates” communicate with each other. The bad guys are simplistic and their motivations shallow. As in most TV shows, hacking is portrayed as some kind of magical superpower that lets you take over any computer system within 5 seconds. Some scenes, such as a confrontation during a wedding ceremony in the second season, are cringe-inducing due to ridiculous dialogue and plot.

These are forgivable problems, and the show is still a lot of fun in spite of them. It has gained a significant online following, and while we’re unlikely to see more than the two seasons that have been produced so far, Netflix has at least committed to producing a finale (the last episode ends on a “to be continued” moment).

It’s a unique show in many respects and has many beautiful, glorious moments. Filmed in locations including Berlin, Chicago, London, Mexico City, Mumbai, Nairobi, Reykjavík, San Francisco, and Seoul, it is vibrant with energy and life. Watch it, just prepare to be confused or to cringe now and then, and not because of the lovely, diverse cast or the group sex. :)

4 stars
A celebration of the skill and wisdom of individuals, and an indictment of blind faith in rationalist planning

First published by Yale University Press in 1998, James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State is one of those rare scholarly works that have achieved wide intellectual impact beyond academia. Its core thesis is simple: states and large corporations depend on radical simplification to plan and execute, and in the process, they often ignore the skill and wisdom of the people whose lives they seek to direct. When this faith in rationality is combined with the power to coerce, disaster and misery may follow.

The case studies in the book range from collectivization in the Soviet Union to the planning of large cities. Agriculture is one of the domains Scott is most familiar with. Consequently, much of the book elucidates just how much skill and knowledge are employed on family farms and by pastoralists, even if that skill was acquired more by a “stochastic” method (trial and error) rather than a scientific one. This makes apparent the tragedy of collectivization, which devalued the skill of farmers in order to better control their productive output (or more specifically, that part of their work the state was interested in).

The book’s biggest strength are these insightful case studies; its weakness is its plodding repetition of the same argument over and over again, along with some unnecessary jargon. With better editing, the book could have easily been brought down to 300-350 pages. This makes the book a bit of a slog, but does not distract from its importance.

To be clear, the author is not merely cheerleading for free markets. Indeed, he clarifies repeatedly that powerful market actors (especially when they conspire with the state) may implement similarly disastrous schemes to maximize their own profits. He speaks of the “ecumenical” nature of a faith in high modernism and documents how some “priests” of this belief system have been willing to enter the services of communists and capitalists alike, so long as they were permitted to pursue their ultimately destructive schemes.

Socialists who have faith in nationalization and other large government schemes should read the book to better understand the risks inherent in such projects; libertarian socialists may find it useful to support their skepticism of centralized power.

The book does, of course, not account for recent developments in computing that make management of large amounts of data (e.g., soil and weather data in agriculture) more feasible, nor does it help to navigate the transition to an information economy. These 21st-century developments should not tempt us to renew our faith in rationalist central planning but strengthen our commitment to building decentralized, resilient, cooperative networks.

4 stars
Not recommendable for introductory reading, but quite a nice bedside table book for the experienced Python programmer

Not recommendable for introductory reading, but quite a nice bedside table book for the experienced Python programmer. The entire book is made up of short to medium-length examples constructed by experienced Python programmers solving small real-world programming tasks together with a concise description. Great to learn the hidden intricacies of the programming language.

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